A Century of Service

1881 - 1981

Telephone Operators

Iowa City, Iowa

A booklet dedicted to all the operators who worked in an Iowa City telephone exchange. Printed for the Telephone Pioneers of America 

Iowa City Club

Written by Dorothy A. Dayton
April 30, 1984
Iowa City, Iowa


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  The information below was transcribed from the Telephone Pioneers of America publication, A Century of Service.

Brief Sketch of Telephone Exchange History in Iowa City

The first telephone exchange in Iowa City was opened on March 7, 1881, and served about thirty-five phones at the start.  The exchange was located at 110 1/2 East Washington Street, just above the telegraph office; today the Hayek law offices are in that location.  Frank Moffitt, manager of the telegraph office, was also manager of the telephone company.

The exchange layout and outside plant had been built by D.H. Ogden of Cedar Rapids.  Ogden, together with his partner, G. B. Engle, had been granted the Bell license for part of Iowa; Ogden had started the Cedar Rapids telephone exchange in 1880.  He and his partner had formed the Hawkeye Telephone Company which exited during the construction and opening of the Iowa City exchange, and for a time afterward; in 1882 Hawkeye Telephone was reorganized as Iowa Telephone and Telegraph.  Other name changes followed until Iowa Telephone Company emerged in 1896.  The only other name change was to Northwestern Bell Telephone Company, late in 1920.  The last name change marked the formal incorporation of a single Bell company to serve the five state area which formerly had been served by three Bell-licensed companies, of which Iowa Telephone was one.  However, the three companies ha shared the same president since 1907, had operated substantially as one organization, and had been known as the Northwestern Group of Bell Telephone Companies.

Luella DeWolf was the first telephone operator in Iowa City; all that is known of her is her name.  She is remembered only because Frank Patterson - the night operator from 1883 to 1885 - identified her in speaking with Carl B. Cone in 1942.  Paterson also gave the name of Ada Carter as the operator on days from 1883 to 1885.  By 1891 the exchange is listed in the city directory with the address of 126 1/2 East Washington Street; in the 1893 city directory the address is listed as 210 1/2 East Washington Street; the exchange remained at that location until 1911.

Within twenty years from the opening of the first telephone exchange, a second - and independent - exchange was established.  In 1900 the Johnson County Telephone Company opened an exchange at 222 - probably actually 222 1/2 East Washington Street; today Barbara's Bake Shoppe and the apartments above the shop are in that location.  Edwin Sidwell was an early manager, and Roy Wertz was the manager in 1909.  In the city directory of that year, the Johnson County Telephone Company advertised "1500 free connections in Iowa City and vicinity."

Since the two companies did not interconnect, businesses had to have service from both companies.  This made for a lot of confusion; however, some firms - Iowa Brewing, for one - were fortunate enough to have the same phone number at both companies.  Other firms - not so fortunate - would advertise giving both Bell phone and Johnson County telephone numbers.

On November 15, 1909, the Iowa City Daily Press reported that the Iowa Telephone Company had purchased the Johnson County Telephone Company.  After a postal card ballot of the Johnson County Telephone patrons disclosed that 88% favored having only one telephone system in Iowa City, the Iowa Telephone Company began to consolidate the independent system into the Bell company.  An official of Iowa Telephone noted in December of 1909 that it would be no easy task to swing two offices into one.

Sometime in 1911 the merged local exchange moved into the narrow three story Stillwell building at 227 East Washington Street.  Today the downtown Goodwill Store is in that location.

For over twenty years, the telephone exchange remained at 227 East Washington Street; then in 1929 construction was completed on the first floor of a new, company-owned exchange building at 302 South Linn Street.  The toll division - AT&T- then moved to the new location; this was followed by the business office move, and the completion of the second and third floors to house the traffic department and equipment for the new dial system.  On July 31, 1932, as Iowa City converted to dial service, the operators moved to the new building.

The operators remained in this exchange building until the Iowa City traffic department closed March 31, 1981.  The last telephone operator in Iowa City was Jeris Kaalberg; she was the only operator at the board on that final day.  The building had become known to many employees as "the graham cracker" because of the siding put on when the fourth and fifth floors were added.  The Linn Street structure remains the telephone exchange building and still houses all the equipment needed to serve the local area.  However, due to the centralization of most telephone company departments to other cities and also to the installation of modern space-saving central office equipment, the top three floors and much of the first floor - are no longer in use.

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Hello Central

(Author:  Carl B. Cone, Palimpsest, March 1943)

On March 10, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell spoke the first understandable sentence over the telephone.  He said, "Mr. Watson, come here; I want you."  When the Emperor of Brazil inspected the instrument at the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia later in the year, he was as surprised as he was impressed.  All he could say was, "My God! It talks!" The London Times described the telephone as the "latest American humbug" but, in case the invention should prove successful, the Times established a basis for revising its judgment by claiming that the inventor was a "a Scotchman, though a naturalized American."  Americans were convinced that the telephone was not a humbug, but considered it not much more than an ingenious toy.  In only a few years, however, the telephone became a necessity in our social and economic life.

Perhaps the first apparatus purporting to transmit the human voice was brought to Iowa City from the Philadelphia Exposition by John Hensel.  He paid one dollar for nothing more than two cans connected by a string. It was nearly three years later that S. D. Pryce and W. J. Schell, who operated a hardware store in Iowa City, ordered three telephones, one of them for Father Emonds of St. Mary's Church.  During this interval a few telephones had been installed at Marshalltown, Burlington, Dubuque, Des Moines and Keokuk.

As the number of telephones increased, the desirability of a central exchange office in Iowa City became so apparent that in the fall of 1880 Frank Moffitt, manager of the local telegraph office, undertook to organize one.  In an advertisement in the Iowa City Daily Republican on October 6, 1880, he listed several advantages the telephone had to offer.  A person could use it to call the doctor or to order groceries, and it's potentialities in the world of business were unlimited.  Merchants who had once installed a telephone "would not part with it for four times the cash."  All these benefits are obvious today, but the need for a central exchange is not so clear without an understanding of the operation of the early telephone in the pre-switchboard days.

If Mrs. Smith wanted to talk with Mrs. Jones, she could do so only if there was a direct wire connection between the two homes.  An entire neighborhood might be connected on the same wire, with leads dropping off into various homes. If there were several parties on this line, one subscriber called another by giving the appropriate ring.  This arrangement was similar to a later country line except that the latter had the advantage of a central exchange.  One neighborhood could not talk with another part of town unless a direct connection existed between them.  This system was so crude that it was much better to set up a central exchange into which the wires from all the telephones would lead.  Then the operator could establish a connection between one phone and any other on the switchboard.

Moffitt was so successful in enlisting subscribers for the proposed exchange that construction was begun by (a predecessor company to) the Iowa Telephone Company during the winter of 1880-1881.  The city council gave permission to use the streets for telephone poles by an ordinance passed on December 17, 1880, which stipulated the conditions that had to be met.  Prior to this time, the wires were strung from barns, trees, or any other support that was convenient.  The newspapers printed frequent notices of the progress of the work, exhorting the crew to "rush up" the poles and "the more the merrier."  In the meantime, the Republican was compiling a directory, and it advised all who desired phones to notify the company at once.  This directory was a card listing the names and numbers of subscribers.  As additional telephone were installed, the Republican promised to give notice to its readers to add the new names and numbers to their directories.  On February 19, 1881, there were fifty-four names on the list, and more persons were about ready to join.

The exchange was formally opened on March 7th, with "about" thirty-five phones in working order and others to be attached soon.  The newspaper reported that the exchange was a "grand success."  D.H. Ogden of (a predecessor company to) the Iowa Telephone Company told the Republican that everything was in good shape and business was thriving.  By the end of the first month the central office reported an average of about a thousand calls daily among the seventy-three phones in use.  Obviously those who proudly possessed telephones were making diligent use of them.

No copies of the first directory seem to have been preserved, and the complete list of subscribers was never published in the Republican, but on April 1st these names were printed to be added to those already on the card:

68 - Star Grocery, W. J. Welch
51 - Saunders, S. L., store
69 - Hughes, W., residence
70 - Whetstone, J. H., drug store
66 - Close & Co., oil mill
62 - Hughes, W., music store
73 - Hinman, A. C., store
63 - Iowa City Glass Co.
65- O'Hanlon & Son, grocers
67 - Rockey, Dr. A. E., residence
64 - Shrader, W. E., drugs
71 - Seydel, John, residence
72- Thornberry, J.H., grocer
On April 29th the paper cautioned its readers not to forget to add these names to their card:
75 - Noel, J.B., confectionery
31 - Packing House
76 - Carson, T.C.

The use of the telephone in those early days was typically American, for it was an instrument for both pleasure and business.  To give concerts over the phone was a favorite indoor pastime until the novelty wore off.  Charles Litzenburger, leader of the Light Guard Band, was a favorite performer.  When he played in Nixon and Brainerd's furniture store and funeral parlor for the listeners assembled in the Republican office, "every note was distinct and perfect and the harmony was never broken." In the estimation of the editor, it was one of the finest entertainments he had ever heard, well worth a substantial admission charge.  The headwaiter at the Palace Hotel, Mark Fisher, was an "inimitable genius" on the harmonica.  The Republican thought it only fair to point out for the enlightenment of persons who liked to have Mr. Fisher play for them over the telephone, that "he is a first-class savings bank for spare quarters." In short, these concerts were call the rage.

The telephone provided other conveniences.  The Republican thought marriages by telephone would become very popular, for the preacher could not kiss the bride.  Fathers at their business establishments could comfort their crying children with assurances that they would bring home peanuts and popcorn.  The Republican was confident that news gathering would be facilitated and would also be devoid of risk because the inquiring reporter "can interview a pugnacious individual with perfect safety."  This might work both ways, however, for irate readers could call the office, express their opinions about the newspaper, and then hang up. The ease with which a radio can be shut off has also been considered a prime virtue.

Merchants were quick to grasp the advantages which the telephone contributed to the conduct of their business.  Only three days after the exchanged had opened, an advertisement announced that persons could telephone their orders to Tanner's mill from Fink's store or the express office.  Bradley's grocery store had five telephone orders on the morning of March 11th.  John Seydel reported that he simply couldn't do without a telephone - one man was busy taking orders, "and the way groceries were called for was a caution. " Nixon and Brainerd, undertakers, advertised that if their services were required at night, call Number 17. The Star Grocery solicited oorders by telephone, while A. C. Atwater, who had just received fifty cases of Milwaukee beer, assured thirsty patrons that "orders by telephone (will be) promptly filled. "

Miraculous and beneficial as the early telephones might have seemed, they were still crude.  The exchange was located at 110 East Washington Street, occupying the floor above the telegraph office.  Frank Moffitt was the local manager for both the telephone and telegraph companies.  Luella DeWolf was the first operator.  Frank Patterson was the night operator and Ada Carter the day operator between 1883 - 1885.  The operators also took care of collections and other business connected with the office.  A lineman for the employ of other company installed phones and had charge of general maintenance.

One of the greatest difficulties in the days before insulated wires and lead cables, was the prevalence of "crosses" in the lines.  There being no cables, each phone was connected with the central exchange by direct wires.  As the wires converged on the exchange they were strung close together.  In a heavy wind the wires would blow against one another and become tangled, the conversations would then be jumbled, subscribers would be unable to get the proper connections and general ill-feeling resulted.  The lineman would have to climb the pole and "shake out the crosses" before order could be restored and tempers soothed.

To the early users of the telephone, however, the crossed wires, imperfect connections and faulty reception were not serious drawbacks. The crude telephone was as miraculous to them as the radio set with its headphones and batteries was to people in the early 1920s. If it seemed fantastic that one person could talk with another a mile away merely by speaking into a mouthpiece, it was even more like a tale from the Arbian Nights when one could carry on a conversation with a person in Tiffin, Oxford, or even Cedar Rapids twenty-five miles distant.  Yet this impossibility was a reality before the year 1881 had half run its course.  Only five years after the first telephone was a proven success, the residents of Iowa City were accustomed to talk with their neighbors in town or their friends in nearby communities without leaving their homes.

(from the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Saturday, February 13, 1926)

The following article appeared at the top center of the front page:
"Hello Girls" Real Heroes
One bit of outstanding heroism that was a result of the big fire this morning was the action of the thirty girls employed in the local exchange of the Northwestern Bell Telephone company.  With the Englert building less than forty-three feet to the west an inferno of flame, the entire day force stayed calmly at their switchboards and answered incoming calls.

The banner headline read:
Entire Down Town Section of City Threatened When Flames Gut Noted Iowa City Theater.

Big Theater Block Smouldering Mass of Ruins Following Disastrous Fire This Morning; Raging Flames Menace Whole Business Block Before Brought Under Control Just Before Noon

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Above are the thirty-one Iowa City Telephone Operators who stayed on duty at the switchboard during the Englert Theatre fire in February of 1926
From left to right: Back row: Anna Dvorsky, Wilma Trundy, Elsie Grundbacher, Loretta Miller, Gwen Wiese, Helen Clark, Loretta Bradley, Gladys Fuhrmeister, Claudia Doliesh and Florence Carlson; Middle row: Anne McComas, Anna Miller, Marie Young, Leona Sullivan, Clara Shulthise, __________, Alma Soucek, Blanche Lukosky, Freda Hills, Etta Shulthise, and Ethel Hills; Front row: Lela Campbell, Estella Todd, Florence Cone, Irma Bouquot, Pearl Conklin, Hattie Goody - Chief Operator, Ferndell Sims, Laura Peet Myra Groh, and Sylvia Boone.

(Author: Nan Seelman, Iowa City Press Citizen, April 10, 1981)

The era of the long distance operator has ended in Iowa City, lending its ear to the electronic age.

The last Northwestern Bell telephone operator in Iowa City made her exit March 31, closing the doors after several decades of service.

The Iowa City operators either resigned, changed jobs, or retired over a period of several months, beginning January 11 when a new system, another miracle of computer technology, was installed, said Kathy DePhillips, regional manager for operator services.

Eight of the former operators will be honored at a retirement party Saturday at the West Branch Country Club.  Past and present Northwestern Bell Telephone employees are expected to attend.

The reason for the operators' departure is a chapter in the oft-heard story of "machines replacing people."  In this case the machine is called ESS - electronic switching system, DePhillips said.

The ESS allows telephone customers to place their long distance calls more quickly, with minimal operator assistance, she said.  Therefore, fewer operators are needed.

With the new system, operators are stationed in only three cities in Iowa - Davenport, Des Moines and Waterloo.

Marian Brown of Iowa City, one of the eight operators to retire, said she was sorry to lose her job of 34 years.  "It was a job I liked.  It's not often you find something you like to do, when you look forward to going to work every morning," she said.  There have been a lot of changes since Brown first began working for the telephone company.  Most of these changes have been in the equipment, she said.  "The headsets changed several times.  We started out with heavy black ones, and then went to some lighter weight headsets.  They then went to an ear mold device."  Brown said that although they knew almost three years ago that their jobs would be terminated, it didn't make it any less of a disappointment.  "It's something everyone knew was coming, but it always seemed like it would be in the future; it wouldn't happen to me.  Then all of a sudden there it is, and you're done."  She said, at age 54, she's not yet ready to retire from the work force, but she decided to take some time off before looking for another job.

Virginia Madsen of Iowa City, a former group manager of operator services, said that everybody she has talked to is "so surprised" to hear there are no longer any operators in Iowa City.  "They thought telephone operators would go on forever," she said.  The duties of the operators "stayed pretty much the same" in the 26 years she worked for the telephone company, Madsen said.  She will also be honored at the retirement party Saturday (though she retired over a month ago).  "With the electronic age coming, it has made it so equipment can do twice as much as it could before," Madsen said. "They just didn't need as many operators anymore."

In addition to Brown and Madsen, the other employees to be honored at the retirement party include Eleanor Dickinson, Betty DIckson, June Ensminger, Dorothy Kahler, Frances Spratte and Elaine Welsh.


Margie Goody TroyerClara YoungEsther BouquotGwen Wiese PudilEthel Hills Thrasher
Elsie Glick JonasLillian VranaLavae Huffman SueppelEleanor Strasser HughesEsther Franklin
Frances Gaulocher LoriaGertrude Miller OwenMarian Alwine BrownJeris Boesel KaalbergMarilyn Warren Pechous

Additional Information

The following information regarding Iowa City telephone operators is a result of additional research I performed after transcribing the Telephone Pioneer's Century of Service pamphlet above.  Having come from a Bell Telephone family (my father, mother, husband and I all worked there) I was inspired to take the "Century of Service" tribute a step farther.

Telephone Operator News
1892 - 1926
Operator Obituaries
Name Index
Persons Named in Century of Service pamphlet
Telephone Operator Lingo 

Page Updated 7 Oct 16